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Ohio State says band director Jonathan Waters ignored 'sexualized' culture

Wire • Jul 28, 2014 at 11:55 PM

Ohio State University fired marching band director Jonathan Waters yesterday after a two-month investigation found that band leaders ignored a "sexualized" culture among students and didn't take sexual-harassment training as recommended.

The firing came two weeks after OSU leaders told Waters he could keep the job if he enacted a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment, his attorney, David Axelrod, said yesterday. The firing was a surprise to Waters, Axelrod said.

"Jonathan has not decided precisely what action he will take," Axelrod said. "He intends to defend his good name in one way or another."

Ohio State fired Waters, 38, after a university investigation found a cascade of evidence that students in the band routinely harassed one another -- often directed from older students to newcomers -- and that Waters ignored complaints about those traditions.

Reached by phone, Waters referred questions about the firing to his attorney.

"Jonathan tried as hard as he could within the constraints imposed upon him to change that culture. He did his absolute best," Axelrod said.

But a 23-page report from the OSU Office of Compliance and Integrity questions his effort.

University investigators found that Waters knew of several traditions and allowed them to continue. The report also found that he mishandled a report that one band member sexually assaulted another: Waters tried to discipline the female victim along with the male student, but Ohio State reversed the decision.

After that sexual-assault report -- the second involving band members since he took over in 2012 -- officials urged Waters to take training on federal sexual-discrimination rules, but he never did.

Dr. Michael Drake, OSU's president, said all university leaders agreed on the firing after they reviewed the report.

"We need to have a safe and supportive environment for our students," he said in an interview. " We care about what is happening when we are looking, but we also care about what is happening when we are not looking, and our leaders have a responsibility to set that standard and to enforce it."

The investigation, triggered by the complaint of a parent, included interviews with Waters, his staff and some band members. Federal rules required a conclusion to the inquiry within 60 days, but Ohio State is planning a wider investigation that will be led by former state Attorney General Betty Montgomery.

The firing and revelations are a major setback to the 225-member marching band -- known as "The Best Damn Band In The Land" and the "pride of the Buckeyes."

Since Waters took the helm, the marching band has seen a swift rise to national fame. He has been credited as a pioneer for giving all students iPads to choreograph dazzling halftime shows that routinely drew millions of viewers to online videos.

He has also been the face of the band, appearing on national talk shows as a marching expert.

But behind that glamour, witnesses said, was a "culture of intimidation" that kept secret the traditions that bothered some students. Some said they complained but were ignored.

Examples of abuse include a yearly midnight band practice at Ohio Stadium in which all students were expected to march wearing only their underwear. After a student suffered alcohol poisoning at the practice in one recent year, staff members, including Waters, began attending the annual tradition.

Some other traditions: All new band members, or "rookies," were given nicknames, many of which were sexually explicit. Rookies were forced to perform "tricks" on command. In one case, a female student was told to imitate a sexual act on the laps of other band members, including her brother.

Several witnesses said that students performed a "flying 69" on tour buses, in which band members hung from the luggage racks and posed in a sexual position. Waters was on the bus when that happened as recently as last fall, according to Pam Bork, a band volunteer who quit last year.

Bork, who volunteered as a health official, reportedly told Waters on the bus, "If I have to hear the word penis or vagina one more time, I'm going to scream." Bork quit soon after because Waters would not address alcohol abuse on that trip, she told investigators.

Bork declined to comment through an OSU receptionist yesterday. Others identified in the report didn't return calls. The names of the students who were interviewed are not included in the findings.

Along with the report, investigators turned over an "unofficial" band songbook with raunchy lyrics set to fight songs from OSU and other schools.

Many, if not all, of the traditions predate Waters, investigators were told, and there is evidence that he fought some of them.

As assistant director in 2011, he punished a student for using an offensive nickname. Later, he banned a student newsletter after it berated a female student, and he disciplined the author. But students also reported that he could be abusive. One witness provided an audio recording of Waters yelling and cursing at him in a private meeting. OSU did not provide the recording.

One student reported that Waters texted dirty limericks to some band members. Axelrod declined to comment on specific accusations yesterday, saying he has not had time to investigate.

Several band members or recent graduates declined to comment on the news yesterday. But social-media websites were flooded with comments, many defending Waters.

There was outrage that Waters is being punished for longtime traditions. Many former band members changed their Facebook profile photos to images from their band days, in support of Waters.

Diana Gilmore was among those who found the punishment unfair. She said similar behavior has been part of the band since at least the 1970s, when her husband was a photographer for the band. She traveled on the tour bus and said she saw lewd behavior. She still has a photo of band members on the field raising middle fingers to the camera as her husband snapped a shot.

"This has been going on. Waters did not start this -- it's a culture that's been going on for a long time under everybody," said Gilmore, whose husband, V. Scott, has since died.

Investigators focused on Waters because he was the target of the initial complaint and director of the marching band when the complaint was filed. They recommended that others below him be considered separately. A second investigation is to be led by Montgomery, who also is a prosecutor in Wood County, home of Bowling Green State University. In addition, the university is bringing in a team of investigators from the firm Ernst & Young to help.

With the football season only weeks away, band members have yet to find out who their new leader will be. Ohio State plans to appoint an interim director before searching for a permanent successor. Waters had been scheduled to conduct the band at its Picnic with the Pops performance Downtown tonight at Columbus Commons, but now it will be led by Russell C. Mikkelson, OSU director of university bands.

Other universities across the country have faced band scandals in recent years.

Florida A&M University suspended its marching band when a band member died after he was beaten aboard a charter bus as part of hazing by other band members. Texas Southern University and Jackson State University in Mississippi both have punished members of their marching bands for hazing, too.

After the Florida hazing, Waters reportedly warned the OSU band against that kind of behavior.

Drake said he was reluctant to fire Waters but felt that he had no choice. "We're looking for a future where the band can continue to thrive and do wonderful things, but some of the aspects of how the band was guided are not acceptable in the modern world," he said.

Waters served the marching and athletic bands for 10 years as assistant director under emeritus director Jon Woods, who led the band for 25 years. Waters became the director after Woods retired.

Waters graduated from Ohio State in 2000 with a bachelor's degree in music education, and he was a member of the marching band from 1995 to 1999. He earned two master's degrees at OSU in music education and conducting, according to his university biography.

Back in Elmore, in northwestern Ohio, where Waters was born, there's still a sign posted at the town entrance heralding it as the home of the OSU band director, Mayor Matt Damschroder said yesterday. He called Waters a "hometown hero." But still, he said, the sign now will come down.

"The sign becomes obsolete if Jon's no longer the director of the Ohio State band."

By Collin Binkley, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio cbinkley@dispatch.com



(c)2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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